At times I have posted articles where the punishment for crime was a certain amount of days on the tread wheel. I thought I would write about the tread wheel just in case you had never heard of it before.
The treadwheel was described as ‘the endless staircase’ and was just that, sort of like walking around the outside of a small, but heavy, mouse wheel. The one in Hobart was 50ft long and could take up to 150 prisoners at a time. Carters Barracks in Sydney had two mills; a large and a small and each of these were composed of two tread wheels. The small took two teams of 10 men, in shifts of 40 mins on and 20 mins off. The large took 18 men on each wheel, 36 mins on and 24 mins off. This wheel revolved twice a minute and the men would each cover 1344ft (409m), or 72 revolutions, per shift.
The ‘staircase’ powered the machinery that was used to grind wheat and corn etc. The punishment wasn’t just the fact that they spent the days of their sentence on this torturous, unending climb. Convicts were often in heavy ankle chains. At times these chains were weighted according to crime and could be more than 28lb (13kg).
It is often stated that convicts dreaded being sentenced to the tread wheel but in my newspaper searches I have only found reference to others begging for mercy on behalf of the sentenced and at times paying a fine to allow them to be discharged from that particular punishment. I have only found one of the convicted begging for mercy himself. (That is not to say that they didn’t, just that my searches haven’t turned up any others yet.) I have found many reports of them begging to be let off fines and to be given extensions to the payment of such though. Does this mean that fines were more of a deterrent that the tread? Perhaps the tread was something that was dreaded but those convicted just didn’t protest against the sentence. The only one I have found was Martin Collins, a person described as ‘corpulent’ in 1835. They sent him anyway, suggesting that it would do him good. Maybe fines were easier to get out of but a protest against the tread would possibly lead to an increase in the length of the sentence. Generally the sentences were quite short, anything from 24 hours to a week seems to be the most popular amount of time given, but often there are sentences that are for months for the more terrible crimes.
I have wondered at the effectiveness of a punishment that makes the bad guys stronger. It might be a terrible punishment for just the week or so, but if you were a really bad guy and spent a considerable amount of time there you would come out of it with legs that were able to endure quite a prolonged chase. I am not sure that you want the worst offenders in your society to be the ones with the best ability to run away.
I haven’t found any reports of injury or death resulting from the treadwheel though. That doesn’t tell me that it was safe though, it just tells me that once you were in there you were not heard of until you came out the other end of your sentence, and that what happened in there was not made public. It doesn’t seem to have deterred repeat offenders though.
I have also found sentences that were handed down in the same court at the same time for both the tread wheel and for hard labour on the tread wheel. I am not sure what the difference would be. Is it just a turn of phrase or are there different versions of the same punishment? Maybe this is just code for the application of the ankle chains.
This doesn’t seem to have been to popular a punishment with some groups in society and there are often negative reports about it. I wonder if it was as effective as they expected or if it was just a good way to get the machinery turning without the expense of hiring people or maintaining a stable of mill horses.